The Dead Heart
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Is Anybody Listening?

There was an unmistakable air of familiarity about the whole affair. The small, smoky room out the back of an inner-city pub with just a few hundred people jammed in, a strong but decidedly low-tech, under-produced new album and songs about spirituality, the ocean and surfing.

It was a long way from the Big Apple, where they blasted the Wall Street lunchtime crowd with songs about US imperialism and Aboriginal land rights from the back of a truck, and stadiums were filled with tens of thousands of screaming fans.

Welcome to Midnight Oil's 1996 Australian tour. OK, so the first concert at the Bridge Hotel at Balmain on Thursday night was for invited industry guests only. But the rest of the tour - just 15 dates in all - will be held at smallish venues up and down the east coast.

The whole back-to-basics concept evokes images of what Midnight Oil once were - a hard-driving, intelligent rock band - before they turned into moral crusaders on everything from nuclear weapons to capitalism and land rights.

A cynic could argue that this latest incarnation is a response to less than enthusiastic sales for their previous album, Earth, [and] Sun and Moon. Although hailed by the critics, the 1993 album sold just 82,000 copies in Australia - less than a fifth of the domestic sales of their 1987 blockbuster, Diesel and Dust.

With almost 20 years and 11.5 million album sales behind them, Midnight Oil are a big international rock act. Normally, in this situation, the record company would control. In would come big-name producers; a fortune would be spent recording and overdubbing. Then the spin doctors and image-makers would grease the industry wheels with launches and promotions interspersed with series of "exclusive" interviews.

But the Oils have always been difficult and different. They have consistently upset the record industry and politicians and, even in their more tolerant moments, have treated the media with disdain.

Instead of working the circuit, they took 1995 off. Then, during rehearsals with a bunch of new songs at a Darling Harbour shed a few months ago, they decided to record the new album, Breathe, there and then, complete with background traffic noises.

As for promotion, the band has opted for minimalist approach. A limited tour in small venues such as Selinas at Coogee, a couple of leagues clubs and a sprinkling of universities on the east coast was to kick off last night at Manly Leagues Club. But there's more - or is that less?

"The band has decided there will be no interviews," says the man from Sony with mournful resignation. What, none at all? "Nothing." How about a photograph? "Sorry," he replies.

It is hardly the accepted recipe for commercial success.

Packed to the gills, French's Tavern could hold I maybe a hundred people in its dingy basement on Oxford Street, just up from Crown Street. It was technically classed as a wine bar and restaurant, and there was no beer, just wine and a potent brew of cider. Somewhere out the back was an ancient kitchen that served up cups of what generously could be described as food, no doubt to comply with licensing laws, but which may well have been the inspiration for the 1985 EP Species Deceases.

But it stayed open late and it welcomed new bands to its tiny downstairs stage. By the time it had disappeared in the mid-'80s, French's had spawned a generation of groups with wildly differing musical styles. One such band was Midnight Oil.

From the start, there was something different about them. To begin with, they were accomplished musicians. There was none of the "play three chords and let's learn as we go" routine evident among many new bands. And they were intelligent. Just out of university, they were politically and socially aware.

The early concerts in 1976 and 1977 featured cover versions from a variety of sources such as Buddy Miles, Steve Miller and Brian Eno, along with a smattering of original tunes. Gradually the covers were dropped as the number of original compositions increased.

Midnight Oil's guitarists, the classically trained Jim Moginie and blues-influenced Martin Rotsey, began working together as an unusual but extraordinarily tight unit with Rob Hirst on drums and their original bass player, known as Bear, providing complex but powerful rhythms.

Out front was gangly two-metre-tall blond law graduate named Peter Garrett. When he shaved his head and perfected his menacing lurch across the stage, the band became an instant underground hit, attracting an odd collection of inner city punks, students and surfers to their regular midweek gigs.

"It started out as a by-product of our lives," explains their manager, Gary Morris, who has been with the band since its birth. "Then it became more serious but, all through that, nothing has ever been planned or calculated. It's just been done on instinct, the same as this tour."

Did he ever think the band would achieve the heights to which they soared? "I thought we had hit the big time when we started packing out the [Narrabeen] Antler," he laughs.

Loud, aggressive and physical, the band left many audiences gaping, sometimes for all the wrong reasons. On their first trip to Melbourne, they were booked to play the support act to Ol'55, a bopping '50s tribute band that featured Frankie J. Holden on vocals. It was a monumental mismatch that, in hindsight, was hilarious.

"It went down like a lead balloon," recalls John Williamson, the Oils' first stage manager. "But the second time we went to Melbourne, we left the crowd shell-shocked. They were just blown away by the whole deal and the excellence of the performance. That's something Midnight Oil have always believed in: that they have a duty to give the best possible performance to the people who have come to see them."

Their first album in 1978, recorded cheaply by a 2JJ producer, was a commercial success and thoughts of professional careers in architecture and law quickly faded. The first three albums contained well written rock songs that subtly evoked issues of social injustice and oblique references to the Australian landscape.

Right from the start, the band dictated their own terms. With a legal background not normally associated with rock bands, they struck recording deals that gave them artistic freedom and a decent profit share.

But it wasn't until 1982 and the release of their fourth album, 10,9,8,7,6,5,4,3,2,1, that they hit the big time. A departure from their previous efforts, the album was overtly political with a strong anti-nuclear message.

Musically, it was far more adventurous than anything they'd done before, using heavy rock guitars interspersed with keyboards, horns and acoustic sounds. The band finally cracked the million-sales mark, with more than half the album sold overseas.

In the late '70s and early '80s Ian "Molly" Meldrum was kingmaker on the Australian music scene. His ABC-TV show Countdown was watched by huge national audience and Meldrum had the capacity to turn absolute dross into a hit. He wanted the Oils on Countdown but insisted they mime, as he had a cast-iron policy that no-one played live. The band, however had a cast-iron policy that they only played live, Neither side backed down and the Oils never made it to Countdown. Meldrum was furious.

Buoyed by the album's success, the band became increasingly political. At one of the first big shows at the Sydney Entertainment Centre, a former US general gave a long homily on the evils of nuclear warfare. But it was difficult not to get the impression that the crowd, while sympathetic to the arguments, were there for a good time and to listen to a great band.

Garrett became the figurehead of a new political party, the Nuclear Disarmament Party. Under his stewardship, it gathered strong support among a youth disenchanted by the spectre of a superpower struggle. The party eventually disintegrated after it was infiltrated by leftist organisations wanting to tap into its support base.

With Garrett's political aspirations on hold, Midnight Oil began a tour of remote Aboriginal stations in the outback, along with the Warumpi Band.

The idea was noble but the tour had its share of problems, not the least of which was that Aboriginal communities had difficulty coming to grips with what Midnight Oil were all about. But at least the band had gone for a first-hand look and from that tour the ideas for Diesel and Dust were formed. The album was a phenomenal success, selling more than 5 million copies world-wide, highlighting the plight of Aborigines on the international arena.

The rock world is littered with casualties. Booze, drugs and sex have taken their toll of many stars. Offstage, however, Midnight Oil's band members rarely made the headlines. No scandal, no wild parties, no incriminating photographs. Just normal family lives.

Instead, they were accused of arrogance, naivety and the contradiction that results from earning a living preaching against the evils of capitalism. Perhaps some of the criticism was justified, but perhaps it was just an inevitable reaction to their success. At the end of 1989, one Sunday newspaper sarcastically predicted the band would have a hit with a song entitled We're Running Out of Things to Protest About.

The criticism appeared to have an impact. Blue Sky Mining, the 1990 album that highlighted the Wittenoom asbestos disaster, was hugely successful, with 3 million copies sold world-wide. But sales were well down on the previous album. The band worked hard and toured heavily, packing out stadiums around the world. The result was a live album in 1992 that, predictably, didn't break any sales records.

But it was Earth, [and] Sun and Moon, the album released three years ago, that proved to be a big sales disappointment. Although there were strong political statements on the album, it had a softer sound and, for the first time in a decade, there also were personal songs. There was an oblique reference to Peter Garrett's mother's death in a fire - an event that many years earlier had him at French's belting out a gut-wrenching performance.

So what went wrong? One insider confides the band felt that maybe there were too many interviews, that everyone theorised about the whole thing a little too much. This time, he says, they just want to play. According to Gary Morris, the album coincided with the emergence of the Seattle grunge invasion. Tastes had changed. According to Morris, however, the band does what the band wants to do and couldn't care about switches in fashion.

During final mixing in New Orleans for the latest album, the band ventured into a small club to watch their producer's band, Pregnant. The crowd could be measured in tens, rather than tens of thousands. Malcolm Byrne, the producer, called them up on stage. It felt good, confides guitarist Martin Rotsey, playing to a small, involved audience, and the idea for the current tour took hold.

The new album contains no overt political themes. There is no preaching. This time the songs are more obscure with issues of the heart. The first single, Underwater, has already been well received, with good airplay.

It was the drummer, Rob Hirst, who wrote many of the anthemic protest songs that became the band's trademark. This time Garrett has been more active with songwriting and arrangements.

Musically diverse, the album features hard rock, acoustic and even country themes, while the guitarists are given more room to explore new territory. Is this a rebirth, the start of a whole new era for the band?

"The band has been about to break up for the past 17 years," laughs Morris. "We've tried to shut the tap off but it's like a bottomless pit and as long as the cup keeps getting filled and as long as it's relevant and works, we'll keep doing it.

"But Midnight Oil will always be volatile and will never know where they are going and what they will be doing."

From Sydney Morning Herald Online, by Ian Verrender

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